For purposes of running a personal life, a very simple rule of thumb is that more money is always better than less. But does it follow that government handouts always "help" the recipients and therefore that more government handouts to the poor are always better than less?
At the extreme, I would say it is obvious that a society where government handouts are the main source of income to most people can't work. Essentially, that's where Rome found itself in the declining days of the empire. Today, it's North Korea.
But here's the problem. There is near unanimous support for some kind of a basic "safety net" for those in genuine need; but there is no agreement on the boundaries of a legitimate "safety net." Put a "safety net" in place, and the next thing you find is that government programs once in place have an inexorable dynamic of endless expansion. Government programs also have fierce defenders who will never let go of whatever level of spending has been achieved so far. Thus, there's an upward ratchet toward an unsustainable position.
An excellent book addressing these issues is Never Enough by William Voegeli. He makes the point that liberal/statist supporters of government handout programs to alleviate poverty will never specify the level at which the programs have achieved their goals and should stop growing. So no matter how much in the way of government handouts exists today, there will be advocates for yet more as helping those at the lower end of the income distribution. I would add that fraudulent government income statistics -- particularly the ridiculous failure to count hundreds of billions of dollars of annual in kind distributions in the measure of "income" -- play a big role in the advocacy for more distributions even as the existing level ought to be far more than enough to eradicate poverty by any legitimate definition.
Examples are everywhere of advocacy for maintaining or increasing government distributions without acknowledgement of the growth dynamic of the programs or of any need for limits. To take a couple of examples from the last week, on Monday January 13 we have Paul Krugman in the New York Times with a column headlined "Enemies Of The Poor." Sample quote:
It's not much of an exaggeration to say that right now Republicans are doing all they can to hurt the poor, and they would have inflicted vast additional harm if they had won the 2012 election.
The "harm" to the poor consists of attempts to rein in government spending, with the main programs mentioned being Obamacare, food stamps and Medicaid. Or in the Wall Street Journal of January 14, we have Alan Blinder with a very similar column headlined "How Government Wages War on the Poor." Sample quote:
That brief shining moment [Clinton's second term] was followed by the presidency of George W. Bush, who took the country back to Reaganomics: huge tax cuts for the rich, exploding budget deficits and numerous efforts to trim social programs. . . . Today, President Obama wants to get the federal government back on the side of the poor.
Blinder seems to be focusing mostly on unemployment insurance extensions and the minimum wage.
Neither Krugman nor Blinder, nor any of their many co-advocates, ever mentions actual numbers of the growth of distribution programs, or ever suggests the point at which they would agree that the distributions are adequate. For example, here are government numbers for the food stamp program. In 2000 (that's Blinder's "brief shining moment") there were 17.2 million recipients of food stamps and the total cost of the program was $17.05 billion. In 2008, after what Blinder calls Bush's "numerous efforts to trim social programs" (note: can't say I really noticed those; in fact government spending on social programs exploded under Bush) the number of recipients was 28.2 million and the total cost was $37.6 billion. The 2013 figures, after five years of Obama, are 47.6 million recipients and total cost of $79.6 billion.
So what are the right numbers for food stamps? If Blinder actually believes that Clinton's second term was the "brief shining moment" of social programs for the poor, should we go back to 17 million or so recipients? Or maybe 48 million recipients is still not enough. So should there be 70 million, or 100 million? Can we agree that limited resources have something to do with the discussion? And is maintaining the independence of the people from the government a value of any significance?
Or consider Medicaid spending. That was $209.6 billion in the "bright shining moment" of 2000; $333.2 billion in FY 2007 after two terms of the harsh, harsh Bush cuts; and $415.1 billion in FY 2012. It's now set to explode under Obamacare. Again, will Krugman, Blinder, or any of their confreres please enlighten us with what they think is the appropriate level? Or should this program as well grow at a rate far faster than the economy for the indefinite future until it engulfs the entire economy?
And then there's the question of whether the rapid expansion of the number of recipients of the handouts is good for the recipients themselves. Here's a quote you may be familiar with:
Dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.
That's from Franklin Roosevelt's 1935 State of the Union address.
My view would be that the idea behind the safety net should be to minimize it. Those administering the programs should be commissioned at all times to be on the lookout for those who don't really need the assistance, and trying to figure out ways to get them back to independence. Instead today, we have government at all levels aggressively promoting dependency and seeking to grow its programs in any way it can. I would say that that's the real "war on the poor."